Napoleon was here. On this island. In exile.
He had two homes. One above the main port of Elba, Portoferraio, and another, this one, in the “countryside.” I have put countryside in quotation marks, because countryside is scarce on an island mostly composed of mountains that slide to the turquoise sea in green mantels of pine, oleander, olive, myrtle, eucalyptus and azalea.
Napoleon’s house in the country, San Martino, affected me very much the way the other one did two years ago. Both homes are grand by this island’s standards, but there is something downsized and innocent about them. They are big, but they are not what you would call palatial. The internal spaces don’t intimidate; in fact, there is something cozy about them.
Both properties are wanting for care, yet there is something about the shabbiness of them that adds to their heart-rending appeal. Here, things are not manicured for us to see in their original splendor, but rather maintained just enough for us to imagine how it might have been while at the same time remaining aware of the ruthless passage of the time.
While I love the private spaces—the smallish bedroom with the sleigh bed and the enormous ruined mirror—my heart was most touched by the greenhouse. A lovely structure once kept warm with piped-in hot water, it has been left in shambles only to be taken over by plants—not the sort that were once raised to please an Emperor, but the those that rapidly rule the earth if no one is keeping watch.
I was fascinated by Napoleon whe I was a school. I would love to visit this house. I have been to the steam grotto in Bagni di Lucca that was the personal grotto of his sister Elise. I have been told that Napoleon used it on occasion. One of the things I really love about Italy is the wonderful layers of history. Australia is a very young country – for Europeans – and we just don’t have that here. There are very few lasting reminders of our past.